"A huge and interesting problem"

by Kate C
Publish date
25 November 2010
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What happens after archaeologists dig up thousands of pieces of historical material? Where do they go next? And who will care for them in years to come?

These questions were central to a recent symposium at Melbourne Museum. Jointly sponsored by Museum Victoria, La Trobe University and the Australian Research Council (ARC), the symposium was organised by Dr Charlotte Smith, a senior curator at Museum Victoria. The symposium, called Developing sustainable, strategic collection management approaches for Archaeological Assemblages, invited local and international guests to discuss the problem shared by institutions around the world – what to do with boxes and boxes of artefacts.

Archaeological assemblage in storage Rows and rows of archaeological material in storage at Museum Victoria.
Image: Veegan McMasters
Source: Museum Victoria

Charlotte’s curatorial duties include oversight of the Commonwealth Block assemblage, which is the world’s largest 19th century urban assemblage. It comprises 508,000 individual fragments that were excavated from the site bordered by Lonsdale, Exhibition, Little Lonsdale and Spring Streets in Melbourne. It was painstakingly documented and has phenomenal research and exhibition potential, but this is not always the case. Some assemblages excavated in the 1980s arrived at the museum with such scant records that we don't even know where they were dug up.

box of artefacts Some archaeolgocial material is poorly documented; we don’t even know where this particular box of artefacts came from.
Image: Veegan McMasters
Source: Museum Victoria

The idea of sustainability, explained Charlotte, refers to cultural and social sustainability. “It’s making sure we hand on to future generations collections that are manageable.” When it comes to the idea of significance, the perspective of archaeologists and museums are slightly different. “When a museum develops a collection, you can limit your collecting from the start. But in archaeology you can’t make those kinds of decisions because the whole of the record is important and you can’t predict how big it will be.”

Speakers at the archaeological assemblage symposium Speakers at the archaeological assemblage symposium. L-R: Tim Murray, Nick Merriman, Charlotte Smith, Maryanne McCubbin and Terry Childs.
Source: Museum Victoria

By training museum workers in archaeology and vice versa, both groups better understand the perspective of the other. Museum Victoria has a great working relationship with local archaeologists, but not every institution has access to such experts. Until recently, archaeologists rarely received training in collection management and Charlotte talked about the importance for people to have skills in both areas.

Charlotte is very pleased with the outcomes of the symposium about what she describes as “a huge and interesting problem.” The symposium participants were pragmatic in their approach and agreed that better planning at the dig stage of a project, including on-site significance assessment, would help keep these large, important historical assemblages manageable for future generations.


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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.